Playing hard to get might be a terrible idea if you actually like someone - here's why

Playing hard to get might be a terrible idea if you actually like someone - here's why

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Being purposefully aloof might not be the best idea.

  • Many people believe playing hard to get will make someone interested in them.
  • In fact, there is no evidence to suggest this is true.
  • Instead of making you seem appealing, it can make people like you less.
  • Rather than being disinterested, you should be selective.

You will probably have heard this classic piece of dating advice thousands of times: Play hard to get. It's a common belief that acting aloof and unavailable will drive someone crazy, and right into your arms.

If you're looking to attract men, this course of action is considered particularly effective. But if scientific research is anything to go by, it's nonsense.

In the 1970s, a series of studies led by American psychologist Elaine Hatfield looked into whether playing hard to get really works.

Social psychologist Viren Swami highlights the findings in a blog post for Refinery29. In one study, male participants were told to phone up a woman who had been selected with a dating service and ask her out.


Half the time, the woman would be busy and dismissive until finally accepting, and the other half of the time she would enthusiastically accept the invitation.

The men didn't seem to prefer the women who had less free time. In fact, there was no evidence at all that playing hard to get made them more desirable.

Of course, this was the result under experimental conditions. When a man decides to go after a woman who is rebuffing his advances, it may be more nuanced than the fact they like her unavailability. For example, they may have lusted after the same person for years regardless of their interest, or they may enjoy the thrill of the chase.

Games can define the kind of people you attract

In some cases, according to biologist and journalist Mairi Macleod, playing it too cool can mean you attract the wrong kind of people.

"Yes, if you show that you're confident and you don't 'need' somebody, you appear like you've got lots of options and so you must be a good catch," she writes in a blog post for Psychology Today. "The trouble is, though, that if you pretend you're not fussed about having someone there for you, you're going to be an attractive choice for a guy that's not that into commitment."


Erika Ettin, a dating coach and founder of dating site A Little Nudge told Business Insider that it's never a good idea to hide your feelings from a new date or partner. If you're busy and can't meet up with someone, that's one thing, but playing with someone's feelings because you think it will give you the upper hand is a waste of time.

"Does it perhaps make you more desirable in the short term? Sure - to some people, both the people who only appreciate the thrill of the chase and the people who are a bit insecure already, so being aloof feeds on that insecurity," she said. "But, if you're looking for a long-term committed relationship, then you want to be with the person who appreciates your ability to communicate your feelings, not withhold them."

Playing hard to get could also mean you attract people who have an avoidant attachment style. These are people who act very self-sufficient, and only enjoy closeness on their own terms. They like to keep intimacy at bay, and only pursue people who seem disinterested.

It sounds counter-intuitive, as you'd imagine most people would find comfort in a secure relationship. But for some, the insecurity of not really knowing where a relationship is going feels familiar, and humans are creatures of habit.

If they start dating someone who seems secure in what they want, and is clear about pursuing an intimate, exclusive relationship, it feels unfamiliar and they will bail. So they go after people who don't give them any security, which rarely works out in their favour.


Turns out we don't like people who don't like us

If someone is playing hard to get with you, Ettin says this could be a sign they are playing games.

"Men sometimes employ these tactics, too, and that's how Neil Strauss' 'The Game' created an empire, empowering men to try 'pickup artist' techniques," she said. "Just as I would say to women, these 'hard to get' tactics are like candy - it's best at the beginning but then it gets boring and nobody wants it."

Also, there's a difference between liking someone and wanting them. This could explain why playing hard to get doesn't necessarily work.

The "norm of reciprocity" is a sociological term that means we tend to like people who like us, and dislike those who don't. It's a simple idea, but if it's true, it could mean that playing hard to get could make people think we don't like them, leading them to dislike us in return.

But humans have a thing about winning. So even though someone may not like you that much, they may want to still prove they can have you, because they've been chasing you for so long.


In these cases, by playing hard to get, you could be fuelling someone's desire to win. As soon as they "get" you, they'll soon realise they didn't like you that much to begin with, and you're back where you started.

Here's what you can do instead

Hatfield, the American psychologist who conducted the 1970s dating experiments, looked into what a better method of attracting someone could be, for those of us who can't get the balance right with showing interest.

In a final experiment, researchers told men they had matched with five women's profiles, all fake for the purpose of the experiment, who had attended a session where they had filled out forms about what they thought of the men they'd matched with. The men were shown the fake women's answers.

One woman gave all her matches low ratings, one rated them all highly, and a third was selective, rating all the other men poorly except the test subject who was given a very good score. The men then had to rate the women in return, and the consensus was the woman who rated them highly but everyone else poorly was the most desirable.

So it looks like the answer is to be selective, but not excessively. You're not dismissing every option that comes your way, but you're not giving everyone a chance either.


By doing this, you make whoever you do go for feel special, because you obviously have standards. But that doesn't mean being so distant that it gets mistaken for the cold-shoulder.

On the other hand, if you find someone being unresponsive, Ettin said you shouldn't assume they are playing it cool with you. Instead, you should take it for what it is - a lack of proper communication, or simple rudeness. Don't bother chasing them, because if they really liked you in the first place, they'll stop with the games and come back to you.